D: Dan Gilroy / 122m
Cast: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Lynda Gravatt, Amanda Warren, Hugo Armstrong, Sam Gilroy, Tony Plana, DeRon Horton, Amari Cheatom
Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Washington) is the smarter half of a two-partner legal firm, the backroom brains of the outfit, and gladly so because he’s not comfortable in the courtroom. He’s something of a savant, and follows the rule of Law to the letter, even if everyone else around him doesn’t. When his partner suffers a heart attack, Roman is thrust into the spotlight, but his court appearances don’t go so well. It’s something of a mixed blessing then, when his firm is wound down and he has to find a new job. But Roman doesn’t have the social skills to keep himself from upsetting or annoying others, and it’s only when one of his partner’s ex-students (and very successful lawyer heading up his own firm) George Pierce (Farrell) gives him a job that Roman begins to find another place in the world for himself. Given cases to oversee, Roman does his best, but when he ruins a potentially good deal for one of his clients – one that could have prevented a tragedy – a combination of Roman’s guilt and his loathing for the system he works within, leads him to make a decision that will have far-reaching consequences.
A movie that feels like its central character was written with Washington in mind, Roman J. Israel, Esq. does feature yet another notable performance from the man himself, but anyone rushing to see this should be forewarned: while Washington is as impressive as ever, and commands the screen whenever he’s in a scene (which is pretty much all of them), the story that flits around him looking to settle into a comfortable groove, never quite achieves its aims and ambitions, leaving the movie looking and sounding important but upon closer inspection, lacking the shrewdness to make it work overall. Gilroy is a talented writer, but he juggles too many ideas and too many storylines with too little attention to detail. Whether Israel is battling against his own sense of justice, finding possible romance with NACP volunteer Maya (Ejogo), or antagonising the other lawyers in Pierce’s firm, Gilroy never quite succeeds in making it all gel. The various storylines weave in and around each other without ever really connecting, and though Washington is a great choice to unite them all, in the end he’s unable to lift the material out of its self-imposed doldrums.
There’s a lot of talk about justice for all and changing the US judicial system for the better, but it’s a hard sell when Gilroy has Israel abandon his principles because something he does leads to something horrible happening. It’s less a loss of faith and more a chance to inject some much needed drama into a movie that up until then has ambled along quite smoothly but without much purpose. It also lends credence to the idea that Gilroy doesn’t entirely know what to do with Roman, and his character arc suffers accordingly, with his loss of faith setting up a volte face that feels awkward and unconvincing. The same can be said for Pierce, a character who is hugely understanding and supportive of Roman one minute, and then hugely critical and despairing of him the next. Farrell plays him with a lot of charm and surprising sincerity, but has no way of anchoring the character or fleshing it out. Spare a thought for Ejogo, though, saddled with perhaps the worst of all female roles, that of the woman whose sole job it is to tell the lead male character how wonderful and inspiring he is at almost every turn. #HollywoodStillSoSexist anyone?
Rating: 5/10 – dull in stretches, and lacking dramatic focus, it’s unsurprising to learn that Roman J. Israel, Esq. was trimmed by twelve minutes following its Toronto International Film Festival premiere; Washington is the movie’s MVP, but without him it would be a long, slow trudge to the end, and a largely unrewarding one at that.